Apple OS X El Capitan review: Steady as she goes
Apple’s release schedule for OS X has been relentless in recent years, and El Capitan – now available in the App Store to download for free – represents the culmination of four years of annual updates.
On the downside, this means that not every new version brings with it revolutionary new features. On the upside, every update is free, and you get the sense of steady improvement and refinement.
El Capitan is the very epitome of this process. It’s evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, but that’s no bad thing: at this stage of its development, the Mac benefits most from improvement, rather than piling major new feature on top of major new feature, and that is precisely what El Capitan delivers.
According to Apple, the two main focuses of El Capitan’s development were “experience” and performance, rather than the addition of significant new features.
However, it isn’t quite a Snow Leopard – the version of OS X that concentrated almost entirely on performance and stability improvements. And there are some major new elements to El Capitan, features that will have a major impact on the Mac for years to come.
OS X El Capitan: Split View
The biggest improvement in the experience of OS X comes with a change to full-screen view, called Split View. Taking apps full-screen has been possible since Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, and it’s always been a useful feature for anyone wanting to concentrate on a single application without interruption. If you’re a novelist and want to focus on churning out your daily 1,500 words, full-screen view lets you do that effectively.
However, even when you’re trying to concentrate on a single task, a single application can’t always give you everything you need. While writing, for example, I often find I need a browser open for research purposes. If you’re creating a presentation, you might want an image application open. And if you’re the aforementioned novelist, you probably want to refer to your notes about characters without having to faff around switching between application windows.
Split View is the answer to this. Click and hold on the green button in an app’s window bar and you can “snap” the window into half of the screen. You then select a second window to fill the other half of the screen, from a Mission Control-style view. You then have a full-screen view with two applications side by side, and you can drag the split between them to make one wider and the other thinner.
If this sounds familiar, it should: it’s similar to the Snap Assist feature in Windows 10, and is clearly a development of the basic Snap feature that Microsoft introduced with Windows 7 in 2009. Apple has never been shy of borrowing features from Windows, but this is perhaps the most blatant example yet.
That’s not a criticism. Snap has long been one of my favourite features in Windows, and I’m glad to see Apple create its own version. It better reflects the fact that people use multiple applications for most tasks, and makes full-screen view much more productive if you use it sensibly.
As you’d expect from a developer release, Split View has some rough edges, and it requires a degree of developer support to make it work properly. But it’s promising enough to make me want to use it already, and I suspect I’ll be using it a lot once the final release is done.
OS X El Capitan: Mission Control improvements
Coupled to Split View are some minor improvements in how Mission Control works. As with previous releases, swiping up on the trackpad with three fingers (or hitting F3 on the keyboard) brings up Mission Control, which lets you see all the windows and workspaces you have open.
In El Capitan, creating a new full-screen workspace is as simple as dragging a window up to the top of Mission Control. It’s been possible to create a new multi-window desktop by using the “+” button at the top of the screen for some time, but we suspect users will prefer to drag windows around rather than create multiple window-based workspaces.
Put Split View and the changes to Mission Control together, and it’s clear that Apple is determined to make full-screen mode a more viable way of working on the Mac.
OS X El Capitan: Notes
To describe previous versions of Notes as “basic” would be being charitable. As soon as you went beyond the most simple note-taking tasks, Notes just couldn’t cut it. The only advantage it had over third-party notes applications was that it synced across your iOS devices and Macs seamlessly.
In El Capitan, Notes has had a complete revamp and is now inching closer to the likes of OneNote and Evernote as a proper power-user note-taking application. Notes now uses iCloud Drive as a syncing mechanism, rather than IMAP, which should – in theory – increase its speed and reliability.
More importantly, Notes includes a much wider range of content types, including checklists, pictures, maps and more. You can bring content into Notes from any application that supports OS X’s native Share tool, which makes it much more convenient as a place for keeping clippings from elsewhere.
What’s missing from Notes is any way of tagging or filing your content. There are no tabs or folders, so you can’t separate out your work notes from personal ones – your content is essentially one long stream.
However, there’s one feature that definitely helps with organisation. The “Attachments Browser” groups together different kinds of content you’ve put into Notes, so you can see all your web links, maps, videos and images under a single tab. This is a really useful feature, and makes Notes much more flexible. There’s even a tab for sketches, which seems out of place on a Mac – but makes much more sense when you think of the Apple iPad Pro, especially when equipped with the Apple Pencil.
OS X El Capitan: Mail
OS X Mail sometimes draws a lot of fire, particularly from power users. However, it’s also one of the most commonly used applications on the Mac, which makes any improvement to it disproportionately important.
OS X El Capitan doesn’t include the radical reworking of Mail that some users would want. Instead, it add some simple new features designed to make the application nicer and more powerful, particularly in full-screen mode.
Previously, one of the major problems with using Mail in full-screen mode came about when you tried to create a new mail message. A draft would appear over the top of your main window – but there was no way to look at the content (or any other content) without closing the message and saving it as a draft.
In El Capitan, you can “dock” messages to the bottom of the screen so that you can have a look at other emails while composing. You can also create multiple new mails, each of which appears as a separate tab in the new mail composer. This, basically, makes full-screen mode in Mail actually useful and usable.
Although there’s no Siri in El Capitan, Apple has at least built in a little more intelligence to Mail. If there’s a suggestion of a meeting in a message’s content, you can now add that meeting to your calendar with a single click. Likewise, if you don’t have the contact details of the person emailing you in your address book, a single click in the message will add them. It’s not as powerful as the kind of data detection you get in Outlook for Windows, but it’s pretty good.
The final change to Mail isn’t something mouse users will care about – but if you use a trackpad, you’ll like it. You can now triage your email by swiping the cursor over the message, in a similar way to how it works on iOS.
Overall, Mail’s improvements are good, but aren’t ones that will turn the Mail haters into Mail lovers. But if you already use Mail, and especially if you like using full-screen apps, you’ll appreciate the changes.
OS X El Capitan: Calling out the cursor
Another small but extremely welcome improvement is the “call out your cursor” feature. If you’ve ever used a large, high-resolution screen such as the new Retina iMac, or multiple monitors, you’ll have lost track of the cursor at some point.
To solve this minor annoyance, all you need to do in El Capitan is rapidly waggle your finger on the trackpad, or your mouse. The cursor then grows larger, allowing you to see whereabouts on the screen it is. It’s a small detail, but a very useful one.
OS X El Capitan: Safari
Thanks largely to Chrome’s ability to rob your MacBook of a couple of hours of battery life, Safari has been the best choice of browser on the platform for some time. It does also include some features (such as Reading List) that make it a good choice anyway, and the new version of Safari in El Capitan pushes its usefulness further.
The first and most useful feature is Pinned Sites. Any website can now be “pinned” by dragging it to the left-hand side of the browser window, or right-clicking it and selecting “Pin Tab”. Pinned sites are represented by a single letter or icon, making them much more space-efficient, and they remain open at all times.
Thankfully, Safari now includes a simple system for muting tabs, showing which tabs are playing audio with an icon on the tab, and allowing them to be muted quickly. It makes it much easier to see where that irritating auto-play video advert is lurking.
Apple has also added the ability to play picture-in-picture web video, and use AirPlay to send web video to an Apple TV.
OS X El Capitan: Other features
The changes to Safari and Split View are the biggest and most visible developments for users, but there are a few other things worth mentioning.
Spotlight has gained the Siri-like ability to parse natural-language queries, such as “show me all my documents from March”, to deliver relevant results. You can also use Spotlight to hunt down the latest football scores, or ask about the weather.
Of particular interest for developers is the release of Metal for Mac. Metal is a core graphics technology that delivers massive improvements in performance for applications that use it, and – because it originated on iOS – should also make it easier to port applications between the two platforms. Expect a slew of new, high-performance games to come to the Mac on the back of Metal.
Since the developer release, OS X El Capitan hasn’t changed all that much, other than to gain stability. But I was impressed when I first encountered it, and that opinion hasn’t changed. It’s clear that there’s more than enough here to tempt people to upgrade.
The features that focus on making full-screen view more useful and usable are really welcome. Full-screen view has felt neglected since it was released; limiting its use to only one application at a time doesn’t tally at all with the way people work in the real world. Split View, Mail tabs and the improved Mission Control are likely to make it much more popular.
What’s also interesting is how many of these features are designed to bring OS X and iOS closer together in terms of usability; iOS 9 and El Capitan look like siblings these days, rather than the distant cousins that iOS 8 and Yosemite were.
There’s still no sign that Apple is going to make the mistake that Microsoft did with Windows 8, by merging OS X and iOS completely. The two platforms meet different needs, even if their user interfaces are becoming increasingly similar.
Mac applications can expect to be able to harness the full power of a processor, without the operating system interceding in order to preserve battery life too often. iOS applications, on the other hand, have to be built to work on devices where battery life is big concern, and watchOS applications even more so.
El Capitan makes the roadmap for OS X and iOS more obvious. They won’t become one, but they will gradually – and to the limits of their respective hardware – become more like each other. And that’s what makes El Capitan (and iOS 9) really exciting.